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Tucked away in a courtyard off Lincoln Road, between Euclid and Pennsylvania avenues, the Bee Hive Lounge has the look and feel of a comfy dungeon. Lit mostly by candles perched on shaky iron stands, the small room features a row of large windows shielded by white gauzy curtains. Two long velveteen couches arranged in an L-shape and a high-backed chair form a conversation pit in the middle of the room. Across from the windows a huge abstract painting is suspended from the ceiling by chains. A banquette extends across the front of the room, ending abruptly at a small elevated stage in the corner. This being Friday night, the area is occupied by a curious-looking fivesome known as Satellite Lounge.
Ursula 1000 (a.k.a. Alex Gimeno), a slight, dark-haired man wearing small rectangular glasses, a devilish Vandyke, and headphones calmly operates twin turntables. Edward Bobb, tall, pale, and blond, hunches over a synthesizer and grimaces as he twists knobs and buttons, coaxing sounds that seem to come from outer space. Trumpet player David Font, an intense figure with a pronounced widow's peak, blows a few staccato notes and then stops suddenly. Off to the side of the stage, bassist Michael Elkind gyrates next to his huge upright. Clad in black and sporting dark-rimmed glasses, he looks like a beatnik but lacks the detached cool; he bounces joyfully from side to side like Snoopy in a Peanuts cartoon. Saxophonist Zane Hobbs stands with his straw porkpie hat set at a rakish angle, summoning notes from his horn. He seems to be in a trance.
He's not the only one. Although conversation is possible over the music, none of the two dozen fans on hand are talking. They are transfixed by the band's sound, a distinctly urban blend of styles that shifts tempos and moods relentlessly. One moment the musicians are weaving a tense sonic backdrop worthy of film noir, the next they're spinning out a soothing ambient groove.
So what exactly are these guys playing? Acid jazz is the easiest pigeonhole. And certainly, Satellite Lounge incorporates elements of that genre. But the fivesome is far too unorthodox for any one label.
Take the instrumentation: no drummer in this band. Instead, the rhythm section consists of Elkind's booming bass and Ursula 1000's sampled backbeats. These may vary from a fragment of the house hit "Gemini" by Alpha Rhymes to "Halloween Tricks and Treats," a Kid Koala song containing its own snippet of the cartoon character Charlie Brown inspecting his candy bag: "I got a rock!" Guitars are noticeably absent, as are conventional keyboards; Bobb's versatile Moog synthesizer fills that role. He produces a variety of whirs, hums, and pops that are ethereal, scary, and sometimes more grating than melodic. Font and Hobbs harmonize, their horns soaring sweetly over the jazzy din. At other moments, the sax and trumpet player cover entire tunes, such as Miles Davis's jazz masterpiece "All Blues." Songs stretch anywhere from eight to twenty minutes.
Satellite Lounge began its life not as a band but as a night -- Mondays at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti. Created in January of 1997 by Miamian Edward Bobb, age 43, the evening attracted a small crowd of musicians and featured Jerk Machine, a duo consisting of Bobb on the Moog and Todd Quesada on keyboards. Bobb conceived of the project after listening to a slew of tracks by Soft Machine, a group of British musicians who forged a sort of jazz-rock fusion, minus guitars, in the late Sixties.
Using Soft Machine's work as a template, Bobb wanted to simulate roaring sounds of nature by utilizing a variety of electronic instruments, but no guitars. He ended up with freeform noise rock. His work with Jerk Machine led him to pursue a broader vision: using found sounds and instrumental lines to create a musical montage.
A pioneer of avant-garde music in Miami, Bobb began performing publicly in the early Eighties as half of the Neutronics, which shortly thereafter became the Happiness Boys. Employing the then cool Casio keyboard, electronic drums, and sequencers, Bobb and partner Stephen Nester performed live over taped sounds, introducing audiences to their brand of insistent, polyrhythmic techno. After releasing two albums on the Miami-based Duotone label, the Boys parted ways in 1984 and Bobb embarked on a solo career, composing dance scores and creating performance art pieces and video and sound installations in clubs and museums.
A few years ago, Bobb joined the faculty at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus as an adjunct professor, teaching courses such as experimental cinema and theater of sound. There he met music student Michael Elkind, age 23, who had come to Miami from Oakland to study classical music composition at the New World School of the Arts. "I was casting for a certain look and sound, and Michael fit in perfectly," Bobb says.
Elkind, a student of the bass for ten years and of the cello before that, took his upright to Churchill's one night to sit in with Jerk Machine. Bobb and keyboardist Quesada liked what they heard, and the duo soon became a trio. Bobb's concept began to take shape.
Bobb ruled out using drums and guitars: "I was just sick of them. I didn't want that locked-in, formulaic sound. I was interested in breaking formulas, not following them." He also vetoed rehearsing. The leader found that playing, then stopping to analyze, was too confining. He preferred to tape live performances and pick them apart later.
For the band to continue to grow, Bobb felt they had to begin playing in a different venue. "We were looking for a place that had less of a contained audience, where people could walk in off the street and we could feel their energy and reaction, where the sound could be honed," Bobb says.
Elkind, who works at Books & Books on Lincoln Road, suggested trying the Bee Hive. This past May he and Bobb (minus keyboardist Quesada, who had dropped out), began performing there on Friday nights. Elkind also proposed incorporating turntables into the blend. Bobb agreed and quickly recruited Ursula 1000, age 30, a long-time friend and DJ-about-town with whom he had collaborated on various musical projects.
Jerk Machine was an instant sensation at the Bee Hive. As Bobb had hoped, its performances took on the improvised feel of a jam session, with each musician responding instinctively to the others. A core audience came to listen and even at times to dance.
Hoping to create the feel of a musical collective, Bobb encouraged local musicians to jam. Elkind invited his neighbor, lifeguard-saxophonist-flutist Zane Hobbs, age 41, to play along. He quickly became a permanent member.
Two months into the Bee Hive gig, Ursula 1000 asked his friend, trumpet player David Font, to sit in one evening. Instead of following standard guest player procedure and immediately joining the fray, Font, age 24, sat out the first set and listened intently. Bobb was impressed with Font's attentiveness and was thoroughly dazzled when he finally got up and blew a single extended note, modulated with a mute.
"I knew we were on our way to the next level," Bobb says. "I called David up the next day and asked him to play with us on a regular basis. I told him that he was what we were lacking, he was the fifth element. Oddly enough, he and his girlfriend had just seen the movie The Fifth Element a couple of days before."
With the lineup complete, the band had one final adjustment to make: a new handle. The inelegant Jerk Machine was dropped in favor of the more fitting Satellite Lounge. Bobb drew the name from his recollection of summer vacation drives with his parents up the Space Coast. "I wanted something that represented the sounds of the past with an eye toward the future," he says.
Fans seem to have picked up on the concept. "I liken the sound they make to getting high in space," says Paul Colombo, an enthusiast since the days at Churchill's.
Fellow musicians are also devotees of the group. Joshua Kay, of the Miami-based techno-dance duo Soul Oddity, which records for Astralwerks (the same label as the Chemical Brothers), makes occasional cameo appearances. "Some of the most creative minds in this town gather themselves on that stage when they play," Kay says. "The music is strange and odd, but in a good way. It transports you 30 years into the future and 30 years back in the past, all at the same time."
With a growing fan base, solid personnel, and two regular showcases a week (the band has since added Saturdays at the Bee Hive), the next logical step for Satellite Lounge would appear to be making an album. Two local labels -- Schematic and Chocolate -- have already expressed interest in putting out releases. But recording Lounge originals might take awhile, because of legal ramifications. Ursula 1000 uses up to half a dozen samples per song, making the required legal clearances cost-prohibitive at this point.
Typically, Bobb is undeterred. "We have 50 or 60 hours of live recordings, and I am in the process of culling the best material for a ten-inch vinyl EP," Bobb says. "We eventually also want to create our own dub plates -- pressing acetates of chirps, sound bites, drum patterns, and break beats to perform with -- that will make releasing material in the future much easier for us."
While the band looks forward to heading to the studio at some point, Bobb says the true Satellite Lounge experience can be found only in the rush of performing live. "It's that supercharged feeling of 'here it is.' There's the audience, and you can't do a retake," he stresses. "It's like doing a live drama during the golden age of television. You have to be great the first time. Sometimes the music doesn't just sound like a score for a movie. Sometimes the music is the movie.